The Rolling Stones and the Wages of Boredom

We live in an unprecedented season of boredom

Not the familiar kind of ennui we all find ourselves experiencing from time to time, but a sort of existential tedium that’s been imposed upon us by the need to contain the ravages of a deadly virus. It’s not that there aren’t ways to endow this tedium with a sense of purpose, but as a society we’ve failed to avail ourselves of any of them – a failing magnified by our inability to cope constructively with the devastating social and economic consequences of the pandemic. While that’s due mainly to a disastrous absence of political leadership of any kind at the highest level, we each bear our own share of responsibility for slipping so unthinkingly into the deep and pervasive collective malaise that’s filled the ensuing void. 

Strangely enough, the soundtrack most relevant to our stay-at-home monotony was written and recorded some five decades ago by the Rolling Stones. Listening to the Stones at this particular moment of shared boredom, it’s not hard to pick up on the overwhelming sense of anomie and listlessness that courses through much of the band’s work. It’s this undercurrent of aimless anxiety that provided the Stones with their creative animus – and what makes the music they made at the height of their powers in the 1960s and 1970s so apropos in our own era of ennui. 

This motivating torpor comes through loud and clear on the band’s first major success, the appropriately titled “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The distorted fuzz of Keith Richards’ languid opening riff provides a fitting prelude to the myriad frustrations with the modern world listed by Mick Jagger. Fueled by the maddeningly contradictory messages he hears from consumer advertisers and an exasperating inability to satiate his sexual desire, Jagger’s central compliant revolves around a state of existential ennui that feels uncannily parallel to that resulting from our own coronavirus confinement. Same goes for “Get Off My Cloud,” another early-era Stones classic in which Jagger describes living in an apartment “on the ninety-ninth floor of my block” and sits “at home looking out the window/Imagining the world has stopped.”

But the band’s animating tedium only truly comes to a head with its seminal 1968 album Beggars Banquet. There, the Stones give full license to the underlying boredom that drives their music. That starts with “Sympathy for the Devil,” where the Stones explore the depravity that results from eternal indolence. It’s as if the sophisticated Satan crafted by the Stones has nothing better to do with his time than cause trouble across human history. For him, this death and destruction amounts to a mere game – though one whose true nature eludes his human audience. An aura of decadent menace surrounds the devil as he demands “some courtesy, some sympathy, and some taste” should the listener ever encounter him. “Use all your well-learned politesse,” he warns, “or I’ll lay your soul to waste.”

Going deeper into the album, the band’s general malaise becomes even more apparent. “No Expectations” and “Dear Doctor” deliver a slow, lazy laments, while on “Jigsaw Puzzle” Jagger “waits so patiently/Lying on the floor.” He’s “just trying to do my jigsaw puzzle/Before it rains anymore.” But it’s on the relatively up-tempo “Street Fighting Man” where the Stones best express their restless boredom. Ostensibly a paean to violent political revolution, the song amounts to an outpouring of aimless frustration when there aren’t any better ways to spend one’s time. (Indeed, boredom often leads to risky and self-destructive behavior.) The narrator claims he personifies disturbance and will “shout and scream, I’ll kill the King I’ll rail at all his servants.” In the end, though, street fighting is nothing more than a release of pent-up energy – in “sleepy London town,” after all, there’s no other way to alleviate boredom “except to sing for a rock and roll band.”

From there on out, it’s only a question of how far the Stones can be driven in their quest to take the edge off their collective listlessness. That’s apparent on songs like “Stray Cat Blues,” an encomium to morally dubious sexual desire on Beggars Banquet, and “Midnight Rambler,” a first person blues narrative about a serial killer on the prowl from Let It Bleed. This ennui-driven exploration of the darker reaches of the human condition probably hits its apotheosis with “Brown Sugar,” the sublime opening track on the Stones’ 1971 masterpiece Sticky Fingers. 

It’s clear in retrospect that the band’s malaise had nowhere more extreme to take them after this depraved triumph, but their languid restlessness still marks the rest of Sticky Fingers. “Did you ever wake up to find,” Jagger wonders on “Sway,” “A day that broke up your mind/Destroyed your notion of circular time?” Likewise, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” exudes agitated ennui from its nasty opening chords through Jagger’s snarling delivery to the concluding jam session between Richards and then-Stones guitarist Mick Taylor. “Dead Flowers,” the album’s penultimate track, makes explicit at least one of the wages of terminal boredom: the desperate stupor of heroin abuse.

Indolence continued to fuel the Stones creatively well into the 1970s. On the opening track of 1972’s Exile On Main Street, for instance, Jagger confesses “the sunshine bores the daylights out of me.” The disco-inflected hit “Miss You” from 1978’s Some Girls alludes to the anxious tedium involved in “hanging on the phone” and “sleeping all alone” while waiting for the call of an erstwhile lover; several songs on 1980’s Emotional Rescue hit similar themes as well. Despite the band’s own licentious lifestyle at the time, there’s a certain theatricality behind their musical decadence. Dissolute aspects of their own personal lives aside, it’s as if the Stones suggest that we shouldn’t take them too seriously.

Two of the band’s most well-known songs suggest that’s the case – and provide rays of light amidst the boredom-generated doom and gloom that characterizes much of their work. Perhaps the Stones’ best song, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” reassures us that after all our trials and tribulations – including a “spike right through my head” – “it’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas.” More to the point, “It’s Only Rock ‘N Roll (But I Like It)” gives the game away: for the Stones (or Jagger at least), rock and roll can’t solve our existential problems – but it is an exceptionally enjoyable way to fill our time and dispel our boredom, if only temporarily.

That’s why the sonic landscape the Stones created five decades ago is so appropriate for our own day and age. With an endless and aimless lockdown nurturing ennui on a massive scale, perhaps it’s only fitting that a band so fueled by the need to relieve its own boredom gives us our most relevant soundtrack. Indeed, the Stones captured the zeitgeist with their most recent single, “Living in a Ghost Town” – and showed how their enduring preoccupation with existential indolence and what to do with it remain potent today. 

But as much as the Stones once pushed the boundaries of good taste and cultivated a well-earned reputation for raising hell while plumbing the depths of debauchery with their music, they also leave us with good reason for optimism. We may be confined to home indefinitely and bored to tears, but it’s all right: we’ve got rock and roll, and it’s a gas, gas, gas.